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Peer-Review and Science’s Funding Problem

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I enjoyed listening to Theral Timpson’s podcast interview of Jason Hoyt yesterday.

Hoyt is the co-founder of Peer J, an open access publisher that is also encouraging biologists to post pre-prints. Peer J offer pre-print hosting for free and is one of those entrepreneurial companies that is trying to find a remedy for the widely perceived science publishing gridlock. Hoyt gives good insights about some of the challenges present in that world.

A couple of years ago, Hoyt also co-wrote an article for Scientific American in which he traces back the history and evolution of science publishing. Amazingly, peer-review of papers was not mandated by most journal until the 1970s.

The article gives a detailed history of “preprints,” showing that they had been common in science in the past, particularly in the Victorian era, ostensibly due to an explosion of knowledge and the desire to get the results out there as soon as possible. He makes an interesting statement. 

The open nature of scholarly communication before the mid 20th Century permeated society so greatly that its influence is still felt today by the lay public who have internalised that science is about open collaboration in the pursuit of universal knowledge.

So what happened after the mid-twentieth century? Hoyt doesn’t elaborate, but one obvious major change is what happened to the funding of science. It went from being decentralized and mostly private, to being centralized and mostly public.

Science is essentially under the influence of a massive government stimulus program which has led to an avalanche of publications that continue to this day. As might have been expected, this funding inflation has greatly devalued the worth of individual papers but increased the power of peer-review — whatever its shortcomings are — since publication in a prestigious peer-review journal is an inevitable way to deal with the deluge of papers.

And it’s not that most papers are necessarily worthless. But if I may take loose inspiration from the Austrian theory of the business cycle, which points to entrepreneurial malinvestment during the boom phase of the business cycle when credit is easy and money is flush, there could very well be a phenomenon of malscience, i.e., scientific output that is not well coordinated to the needs of the scientific community, because this centralized funding cannot reflect the needs of those intended to “consume” the product of the funded research — typically other scientists or technical people in industry or academia. On top of that, of course, the funding necessarily follows bureaucratic rules subject to political influence.

There is no theoretical limit to scientific questions and, no good way to predict how fruitful one line of investigation will be compared to another. Besides, there are many different ways to conceive about the fruitfulness of research. Therefore the funding of research is inherently an entrepreneurial decision.

I applaud the efforts of Hoyt and Peer J, but the only real solution to this problem is to privatize and decentralize the funding of science. The funding of science — including “basic science” — should go back to being the problem of industry and private universities. Only then can we hope to recover “the open nature of scholarly communication.”

UPDATE: Ivan Oransky just published a piece in StatNews about the crisis in peer review, but does not mention any possible connection between that and science funding.


Michel Accad, MD

Michel Accad, MD, practices cardiology and internal medicine in San Francisco, offering individualized care in a free-market setting. His blog about health care and medicine is AlertandOriented.com. He also co-hosts the Accad And Koa Report podcast.

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